In Syria fight, Iran said to recruit from 2 nations
ISLAMABAD — Thousands of Shiite Muslims from Afghanistan and Pakistan are being recruited by Iran to join the fight in Syria, lured by promises including housing and a monthly salary of up to $600, counterterrorism officials and analysts say.
These fighters, who have received public praise from Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, even have their own brigades, but counterterrorism officials in Afghanistan and Pakistan worry about the mayhem they might cause when they return home to countries already wrestling with a militant problem.
Amir Toumaj, Iran research analyst at the U.S.based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said the number of fighters is fluid but that as many as 6,000 Afghans are fighting for Syrian President Bashar Assad, while the number of Pakistanis, who fight under the banner of the Zainabayoun Brigade, is in the hundreds.
Iran has been aiding Assad’s forces in the Syrian civil war.
In Afghanistan, steppedup attacks on minority Shiites — claimed by the upstart Islamic State affiliate known as Islamic State in the Khorasan Province — could be payback against Afghan Shiites in Syria fighting under the banner of the Fatimayoun Brigade, Toumaj said.
Khorasan is an ancient name for an area that included parts of Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia.
“People were expecting blowback,” Toumaj said. The Islamic State, a Sunni militant group, “itself has its own strategy to inflame sectarian strife.”
Shiites in Afghanistan are frightened. Worshippers at a recent Friday prayer service said Shiite mosques in the Afghan capital, including the largest, Ibrahim Khalil mosque, were barely a third full.
Previously on Fridays — the Islamic holy day — the faithful were so many that the overflow often spilled out on the street outside the Kabul mosque.
Mohammed Naim, a Shiite restaurant owner in Kabul, issued a plea to Iran.
“Please don’t send the poor Afghan Shia refugees to fight in Syria because then Daesh attacks directly on Shias,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.
Pakistan has also been targeted by the Islamic State affiliate.
The militant group has claimed several attacks on the country’s Shiite community, sending suicide bombers to shrines and killing scores of devotees.
In Pakistan, sectarian rivalries routinely break into violence.
The usual targets are the country’s minority Shiites, making them willing recruits, Toumaj said.
The most fertile recruitment ground for Iran has been Parachinar, the regional capital of the Khurram tribal region that borders Afghanistan, he said.
There, Shiites have been targeted by suicide bombings carried out by Sunni militants, who consider Shiites to be heretics.
In June, two suicide bombings in rapid succession killed nearly 70 people. The attacks prompted nationwide demonstrations.
A Pakistani intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media, said recruits also hail from the northern Gilgit-Baltistan territory.
Recruiters are often Shiite clerics with ties to Iran, some of whom have studied in seminaries in Iran’s Qom and Mashhad cities, said a second Pakistani official, who also spoke on condition that he not be identified because he still operates in the area and exposing his identity would endanger him.
Yet fighters sign up for many reasons.
Some are inspired to go to Syria to protect sites considered holy to Shiite Muslims, like the shrine honoring Sayyida Zainab, the granddaughter of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.
Located in the Syrian capital of Damascus, the shrine was attacked by Syrian rebels in 2013.
Others sign up for the monthly stipend and the promise of a house. For those recruited from among the more than 1 million Afghan refugees still living in Iran, it’s often the promise of permanent residence in Iran.
For Shiites in Pakistan’s Parachinar, it is anger at the relentless attacks by Sunni militants that drives them to sign up for battle in Syria, Toumaj said.
Mir Hussain Naseri, a member of Afghanistan’s Shiite clerics’ council, said Shiites are obligated to protect religious shrines in both Iraq and Syria, countries where the Islamic State holds territory.
“Afghans are going to Syria to protect the holy places against attacks by Daesh,” he said. “Daesh is the enemy of Shias.”
Ehsan Ghani, chief of Pakistan’s Counterterrorism Authority, said his organization is sifting through hundreds of documents, including immigration files, to get an estimate on the number of Pakistanis fighting on both sides of the many Middle East conflicts, including Syria.
But it’s a cumbersome process.
“We know people are going from here to fight, but we have to know who is going as a pilgrim [to shrines in Syria and Iraq] and who is going to join the fight,” he said.
Pakistan’s many intelligence agencies, as well as the provincial governments, are involved in the search, said Ghani, adding that Pakistan wants an estimate in order to devise a policy to deal with fighters when they return home.
Until now, Pakistan has denied the presence of the Islamic State in that country.